The prosperity gospel has some explaining to do. We are in an economic downturn and countless faithful moms and dads and brothers and sisters are unemployed, suffering, and going to bed worrying if there will be food on the table for the family. Countless Christians are anxious about their finances. You can see it on their faces and you can hear it in their voices and you can read it on their blogs. The problem that must be explained by proponents of the prosperity gospel is that these folks are faithful, they are trusting God, and they are still get sacked and suffering.
The prosperity gospel (or the health and wealth gospel) teaches that God desires the material, spiritual, and physical prosperity of his people. To become prosperous, all one has to do is believe, receive, and act upon God's promises. The prosperity gospel is a half-truth, perhaps less.
Prosperity Gospel and The Vending Machine God
Let's begin with some frankness. For the prosperity gospel, God could be seen as The Vending Machine God: put in faith and out pops blessings – money, homes, cars, beautiful spouses, clever kids, good neighbors, big churches, and plush vacations. For the prosperity gospel, humans are The Happiness Machine: receive the blessings, rely on the promises, act on the commandments and you can put on a happy face – a big one. Every day, from the moment you get up to the closing of your eyes, happiness is the aim of life. In the prosperity gospel, God is there for us; we are here for God to bless.
To quote my father, Hogwash!
The Problem for the Prosperity Gospel: The Bible
The problems here are the Bible and the Christian tradition and the stories of millions, if not billions, of Christians. I will focus on the Bible but the Church has never taught the prosperity gospel and billions of Christians have lives to prove that the prosperity gospel is less than a half truth. Billions have scratched by and suffered their entire lives but lived lives of utter fidelity to God.
That the Bible teaches that God blesses us is unquestioned – from the great blessing of Abraham in Genesis 12 to Deuteronomy 28's famous list of blessings and promises to Jesus' beatitudes to James' famous one liner that God's blessing means the "crown of life" there is a theme in the Bible that God blesses. Indeed, God is good; God's goodness means he blesses us and will continue to bless us.
But, the Bible doesn't permit a prosperity gospel reading. Let's be totally honest with ourselves as we read the Bible. Abraham waited and waited for the son of promise. Joseph experienced being sold into slavery by his God-elected brothers. Moses' call to ransom captive Israel led to years of privation and testing. Israel only crossed the Jordan River after 40 years in the wilderness (and Moses never crossed the Jordan). David was the prototype of the Messiah-King but suffered years of waiting, family struggles, and a son who fell away from faithfulness. Jeremiah spent most of his days in tears. Daniel was a devoted Israelite who had anything but a cushy life. And what about Job? What do we do with this paradigm of fidelity? His faithfulness seems to have gotten him into the crosshairs of the Adversary.
What about the New Testament saints? Let's begin with the Story of Jesus: an innocent man who was cruelly crucified and he left behind a mother who had been promised that her son would be the King of Israel (Luke 1:46-55). Peter first confessed Jesus as Messiah but struggled mightily to comprehend a Messiah who had to be crucified. The tradition tells us he was martyred. Paul … what do we need to say but quote these lines from his own letter to the Corinthians: "Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 13:7-10). The constant patter of Paul's life was suffering, not material blessing. And the roll call in Hebrews 11 tells us time and again of solid saints who experienced one hardship after another.
The Every Day Cross
The paradigm of who we are as humans in the Bible is not the Happiness Machine. The paradigm of the human is the Cross. Jesus told his followers to take up the cross every day and that meant to be ready to suffer (Luke 9:23). Jesus was crucified for us and we are called to die with him (Romans 6). The deepest paradigm for the human in the Bible is the human who has died with Christ, died to self, died to everything we want, died to the world, and died to the flesh. We are called not to seek our own happiness but to seek the glory of God by giving ourselves to God and for others. The problem with the prosperity gospel is that it focuses on "getting our wants." The cross gospel focuses on "giving our selves." Love of God means to live for God; love of self means to die to self so we can love God and others; love of others means dying to self so we can serve others. We are not Happiness Machines but Loving Machines. Seeing ourselves as Happiness Machines is the prosperity gospel; seeing ourselves as Loving Machines is the cross gospel.
The prosperity gospel is less than a half-truth. The God of the Bible is good; the God of the Bible indeed blesses. But the God of the Bible is the God who will see us through regardless of the circumstances. God sometimes blesses and we raise our hands in thanks. But other times we are not experiencing the blessing of God (or at least we think we are not), and what we learn is that God is there, watching and waiting for us to trust him, obey him, and learn that in loving him we have life's deepest blessing. He's with us, through thick and thin. Some days are good and we thank God for his blessings. Some days are difficult and we are summoned by the good God to trust, to be faithful, not to lose heart, and to hang on in the hope that Someday, Somehow God will step into history one more time and turn the world upside down so that justice will be established, peace will reign, and love will connect everyone. We may or we may not be prosperous; what we are called to be is faithful and loving.